Date: Year 14, day 6.
Location: Memphis, Tennessee.
Miles traveled so far: I have no idea. The Mississippi didn’t exactly take a straight line.
Miles left to go: About 800 because Tan says we need to go through Atlanta, but he won’t tell us why.
Things I need to worry about today: We’re getting low on food.
Conner hit a pothole in the road, and the bounce woke up Pippen, who had been taking a catnap on top of the sleeping bags.
“Huh? Where are we? Is it time to eat?”
“It’s almost lunchtime.” I checked the map. “We’re in the state of Mississippi. If we don’t run into any problems, we might even get to the lab by tonight. I’ll read you what the geography book says about Mississippi.”
The state of Mississippi is named for the river that comprises its western border. The name means “great waters” in the Chippewa language. Over half the state is forest.
I stopped reading and looked out the window. The land we were passing through didn’t look like any forest I’d ever seen. I couldn’t see any individual trees, just a single lumpy mass of green leaves on either side of the road. It looked like a giant had thrown a fuzzy green blanket over everything. Weird.
We stopped in the middle of the highway to eat lunch. When I opened my door, I noticed the air felt somehow…softer here. It had to be the humidity. I hadn’t had to use my Chapstick since we’d gotten to the river two days ago.
Our food situation was not so good; we were down to the MREs. Meals Ready to Eat are army food, sealed in tough plastic pouches. They last nearly forever, but there was a reason we’d saved them for last: they taste like leftover leftovers. To try to make the MREs more interesting, we each reached into the box with our eyes closed and picked a lunch. I was hoping for the Cheese Tortellini but I got Beef Ravioli. Oh well, they taste the same anyway. Tan finished his Beef Stew or possibly Chili with Beans and walked over to the side of the road, where the leaves formed a wall. He plucked a sample and came back to the Humvee, examining the trio of glossy green leaves.
“I want to know what this stuff is,” he said. “Do we have any books on botany?”
“No botany books,” I said, “but I think I saw that plant in the geography book.”
I found the picture in a sidebar in the chapter on Alabama, and read out loud.
A Foreign Invader
In the early 1900s, the southern states had a severe problem with soil erosion caused by years of poor farming practices. To control the erosion, the United States government brought a vine called “kudzu” from Japan and introduced it to southern states. The US government hired thousands of unemployed men to plant kudzu along roads. They paid farmers to grow it instead of cotton. They even spread the seeds from airplanes. The hot, humid climate of the southeast suited kudzu perfectly, and with no natural insect enemies, it grew even better than it had in Japan. As it turned out, it grew too well. It spread at a phenomenal rate, up to a foot a day. Kudzu vines invaded pastureland, overran native vegetation, and choked trees. By the 1970s, the United States government had declared kudzu a weed, and today spends millions of dollars a year fighting a war against the plant it once helped spread.
“Zow,” said Pippen. “I think the kudzu won the war!”
The kudzu had covered everything. It climbed up the power poles and spread sideways along the wires, turning them into a line of green giants spreading out their arms. Underneath the green blanket of leaves, there were soft lumps that might be trees, or cars or buildings.
Tan looked at the green mass critically. “You know, I think that stuff only grows on the surface where there’s enough sunlight. I wonder what it looks like underneath the leaves. Want to go check it out?”
“Nope,” I said. We were on a quest, and I wasn’t going to let us get distracted. I went back to my MRE.
“She’s just rabbit,” said Pippen. “She’s afraid it’s an enchanted forest, and if we went in there, the fairies would catch us and turn us into toadstools for a thousand years.”
I ignored them.
“Callie’s not rabbit,” Tan said to Pippen. “She just doesn’t have as much scientific curiosity as I do.”
“Excuse me?” I protested. “I have twice as much scientific curiosity as you do! Come on, let’s go have a look!”
The four of us marched to the wall of green. Tan hesitated for a moment, then wiggled his way into the vines and disappeared. In a few seconds, we heard his muffled voice.
“You guys have got to see this!”
Pippen and Conner followed Tan. I took a big breath, and then plunged through the kudzu.
At first, everything looked dark. Then as my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw we were standing in a huge green hall. The trunks of massive trees formed pillars that arched high overhead, holding up the leafy ceiling. The kudzu covering grabbed most of the sunlight; only a soft greenish glow penetrated to the inside. The floor was covered with ferns, and gigantic feather-shaped mushrooms grew on the trunks of the trees. A hummingbird flitted past me to sip from a showy flower. There were peeps and chirps and croaks from invisible creatures all around us. White moths fluttered around, occasionally straying into a rare beam of sunlight that lit them up so the air seemed to sparkle.
“This is incredible!” I whispered reverently.
“Amazing!” agreed Conner.
“It is an enchanted forest!” said Tan.
“Well, I don’t know about enchanted,” Pippen said, refusing to be impressed. “It’s just a normal forest like we have all over at home. See, it has trees, we have trees. It has leaves, we have leaves. We have noisy squirrels at home, just like the ones here.” She broke off a stick and chucked it at a small squirrel that had been insulting us from a high branch. Before the stick struck, the squirrel leaped off the branch, spreading furry folds of skin like wings. It glided gracefully through the air, landed on the trunk of a tree hundreds of feet away and scurried around the other side. “Well, okay” Pippen admitted, “that was a bit different.”
Conner found some hanging vines strong enough to swing on, Tan entertained himself pulling apart rotting logs infested with roly-poly bugs, I found some little mushrooms that puffed smoke when you poked them, and Pippen ran all over trying to catch a flying squirrel to take home as a pet. It was at least twenty degrees cooler inside the enchanted forest, and I would have loved to play longer, but we had a quest to finish. After an hour I called a halt, and we headed back to the Humvee.
When we crossed into Georgia, Tan read the entry.
Georgia is one of the original thirteen colonies of the United States. During the American Civil War, the city of Atlanta was burned to the ground. The city was rebuilt and today is the capital of Georgia. Atlanta is sometimes called “a city in a forest” because of all the trees growing in the city.
“Never mind that!” said Pippen. “Tell us why there are people in Atlanta!”
“All right,” said Tan. “We’re close enough now. There will be people alive in Atlanta because Atlanta is the home of…” he paused dramatically, “…the CDC!”
For a moment the only sound was the growl of the Humvee.
Then Pippen said slowly, “The…Crazy…Doctor…Conspiracy?”
“The Centers for Disease Control!” said Tan, exasperated. “The people who watched for any new disease that might be spreading through the United States.”
“Hey guys!” said Pippen. “You missed one!”
“They couldn’t have missed it,” said Tan. “They had advanced medical equipment, biological containment facilities, and thousands of doctors specializing in stopping epidemics. Obviously they didn’t have enough time to save the world from Fixer, but they must have been able to save themselves. When we get to Atlanta, we’re going to find that all the doctors from the CDC are alive! By now they’ve had time to develop a complete cure, and they’ll come back with us and save Jon!”
“Do you really think the doctors survived?” Conner asked.
“I’m sure of it!”
“Zow!” said Pippen. “Imagine meeting thousands of other people!”
“People who don’t all have the same birthday,” added Conner.
“I wonder if they’ll have any kids our age?” said Tan.
“Okay, okay!” I said. “We’ll go visit the CDC. If they already have a cure for Fixer, this will be the easiest quest ever!”
We watched the horizon as we drove, looking for the first glimpse of the skyline of Atlanta. Finally we did see something in the distance, but it didn’t look anything like the picture in the book. “What’s wrong with the buildings?” Pippen asked. “They look all…crumbly.”
When we got to the city, we could see what was wrong. The buildings were blackened and scorched shells, and some had partially collapsed. There was a forest here, but it was a young forest, with small trees that looked only as old as I was. Here and there, blackened stumps showed what had happened to the city in a forest. Atlanta had been burned again. The streets were covered with grass, but as we drove through, we left two sooty black trails behind us in the soft ground.
“Looks like this happened a long time ago,” Pippen said, quietly.
An entire corner of the puzzle snapped together in my head. “Of course! This probably happened right after Fixer, maybe even the same day! Everybody collapses, and somebody leaves a candle burning near a curtain, or a car knocks down a power pole and starts a fire. With no fire department to put it out, it spreads to the rest of the city! And it doesn’t just happen to Atlanta. Hundreds of cities all over the world burn the same day. And forests! People are sitting around a campfire, and then Fixer gets them and the fire escapes and entire forests go up in flames. All of that smoke goes up into the atmosphere, making the sky red. That’s what Jon saw! And all of the smoke particles in the air blocked the sunlight and cooled the earth and that’s what caused the Endless Winter. Don’t you think that’s got to be it Tan?”
Tan was silent, staring out the window at the ruined city. Oops! In my enthusiasm for scientific exploration, I’d forgotten what this new discovery did to his theory of other groups of survivors.
Conner jumped in quickly. “Callie, the map shows the CDC is out a ways from the center of Atlanta. Maybe the fire didn’t spread that far. Let’s go check it out.”
We found the CDC. It was a spread-out collection of buildings the size of a small city. But the fire had been here too. The buildings were burned and dead-looking. A flock of birds flew out of one building through an open doorway. If anyone here had detected Fixer, it had done them no good. Tan got out of the truck by himself and walked over to a building to peer through one of the blackened windows.
“He must be feeling pretty down right now,” said Conner.
I nodded. “Yeah, poor Tan!”
Conner rolled his eyes. “Callie, I mean, he’s feeling down, so go talk to him!”
Oh right, leader stuff. I walked over to Tan. He was squatting on the ground near a charred sign that said “Centers for Disease Control.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood next to him. Tan sifted the black dirt through his fingers. “Callie, you remember when we were kids?”
“Jon got us all bikes. After we’d been riding for a while with training wheels, Jon took the training wheels off, and showed us how to ride without them. Of course, I fell, again and again. But every time, Jon would come and pick me up, dust my pants off, and help me pick the bike up.”
“Yeah, I remember.” I didn’t know what this had to do with the CDC, though.
“I guess the reason I thought there would be survivors somewhere was that I wanted to find some adults who could solve our problems for us. I wanted so much for someone to pick me up and tell me they would take care of everything that I guess I started to believe it had to be true. But you were right. I’ve been living in a fantasy world. Nobody’s coming to help us. We’ve come nearly two thousand miles, and we haven’t found any other survivors. We really are the only people in the world, aren’t we?”
Tan gazed up at me, looking very lost. I’d never seen anyone lose hope so completely before. I couldn’t let this happen to Tan. There’s a time for facing up to the truth, and there’s a time for looking reality straight in the eye and ignoring it.
“Are you crazy?” I said. “We can’t possibly be the only people in the world! I never realized the world was this big until we tried to cross a tiny part of it. Do you really believe that in all the huge world that Fixer could have gotten everyone?”
Tan answered slowly, “Well, there might have been some groups of people isolated enough that they could have escaped…”
“Right! A tribe of savages on an undiscovered island! Paranoid generals in a secret underground survival bunker! Mutant zombies! Come on, you know there have to be mutant flesh-eating zombies out there, right?”
Tan almost smiled. “You’re just trying to cheer me up, Callie.”
But I could see there was a flicker of hope in Tan’s eyes again.
“Seriously Tan, there have to be other survivors out there somewhere. I just don’t think we’re going to meet them on this quest. This time, we’re going to have to pick ourselves up, dust our own pants off, and get back on the bike.”
“You’re right, Callie,” said Tan, standing up. “I’m sorry. For a minute there, I forgot we’re the clan. We don’t give up as long as we’re still alive!”
We walked back toward the truck together.
“Callie, do you really think there’s an underground military survival bunker?”
“I’d be shocked if there weren’t.”
“Will you help me look for it?”
“Sure, after you cure Jon.”
It was obvious we weren’t going to make it to Orlando by nightfall, but nobody wanted to spend the night in the burnt-out city, so we got back on the road. After we crossed a small river, the burnt section stopped, and we were back in the vine-covered forest. The sun was getting low, and the lumpy green shapes were starting to look menacing.
“Okay,” Pippen said, “we’re in the middle of an enchanted forest, and it’s getting dark. Where are we going to spend the night?”
Tan looked at her like the answer should have been obvious. “The cottage of the Seven Dwarves, of course!”
Conner drove us off the freeway and into a small town. At least, it might have been a town. Everything was just green bumpy blanket. Even the roads were covered, but Arnold had no problem rolling through the vines. There were no cute little bunnies to lead us to the cottage, but we did have something close.
“Pippen, find a house,” I ordered.
Pippen hesitated a moment, then pointed. “There!”
It just looked like a big lump of green to me, but Conner drove up to it anyway. He got out Stanley and started whacking away at the vines. In a few moments, he’d uncovered a door. Some day I’ll have to figure out how Pippen does that.
Leaves covered all the windows, making it dark inside, so we went in with flashlights. Tan called out in a high, syrupy voice, “Hello? Are there any little dwarves here?”
We split up to check out the house.
“No dwarves in here,” called Conner from the kitchen, “but I’ve found us dinner!”
“I found Snow White curled up on the living room floor,” said Pippen. “The wicked witch has put her into an enchanted sleep. Anyone want to go kiss her?”
We explored the house from top to bottom, but the only dwarves we found were porcelain figurines on a bookshelf. Bookshelves tell a lot about the past people who lived in a house. If they’re filled with fantasy books, the past people probably had a good imagination. If the bookshelf has books about talking animals, they probably had kids. If there are books on self-reliance and gardening, you look in the basement for the food storage. This bookshelf was filled with romance novels. I had attempted to study the topic of love once by reading Bonni’s collection of romance novels. I ended up knowing less about love than I had when I started.
Conner found some unopened boxes of cereal in the pantry, so for dinner we each had a bowl of cereal with Sprite, and some tuna fish for dessert.
After supper, the boys took one bedroom, and Pippen and I took another. We climbed into our sleeping bags and switched off our flashlights.
“Zow,” I whispered to Pippen. “Tomorrow we’ll finally be in Florida! We can find the cure for Jon and go home!”
“I’m just happy nothing tried to kill me today,” said Pippen from the darkness.
“It’s not midnight yet,” I said. “There still time. Maybe Nature’s just waiting until Conner’s asleep so he can’t save you.”
“Pffft!” said Pippen.
“Hey Pippen, you should marry Conner. That way he could be around all the time to rescue you, and the two of you would have normal sized kids!”
Pippen sputtered. “Callie, I can’t marry Conner!”
“Why not? Because you don’t love him? Having statistically average children is at least as important as love.”
“I can’t marry Conner because…because back when we were ten, Conner told me he’d decided who he was going to marry, and in all these years, he’s never changed his mind.”
I was shocked. “Conner has a sweetie? Who is she?”
“I can’t tell you. Conner said he’d pound me if I ever told.”
“I’ll pound you if you don’t tell me,” I offered.
“No way! I’m a lot more afraid of him than I am of you.”
I was a bit disappointed. My best friend was in love with someone, and I didn’t know who! But maybe I could treat it as another puzzle. In my free time between leading the Great Quest, finding the cure for Fixer, and saving the world, I could figure out who the girl was. I love a good puzzle!
I went to sleep with a smile on my face.